Brazil, a nation renowned for its vast landscapes and rich history, has often intersected with some of the most prominent figures from the United States. Consider Theodore Roosevelt, not as a former president, but as an explorer venturing into the Amazon’s enigmatic waters. Or Michael Jackson, beyond his global stardom, connecting authentically with Rio’s favelas. These interactions are more than just anecdotes; they represent pivotal moments where American luminaries profoundly engaged with Brazilian culture and challenges. These were some of the first to define what gringo means in Brazil.
From Roosevelt’s daring exploration to Sam Whalton’s unanticipated run-in with São Paulo’s law enforcement, from Jackson’s genuine interaction in Rio to Jefferson’s diplomatic endeavors and Busch’s strategic business moves — Brazil has been a significant arena of action. This compilation sheds light on these lesser-known, yet deeply impactful, engagements between two influential nations. Dive in to uncover the depth and breadth of these American encounters on Brazilian terrain. 🇧🇷🇺🇸
1. Theodore Roosevelt – Getting a River Named After him
Back in 1914, shortly after retiring from the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt was looking for a new adventure. He was making a goodwill trip around South America when the ambassador to Brazil made an offhand comment that would change his life. He mentioned that there was a river up in the Amazon that nobody had explored to success. Nobody knew where it ended up or what lied on the other side. It was appropriately called the River of Doubt.
Theodore Roosevelt put together a crew and returned to the River to go exploring. He brought with him his son Kermit, who was an accomplished linguist and could speak Portuguese. He also brought with him a ragtag group of explorers and scientists, with the mission of documenting their findings and bringing back samples for the Smithsonian museum.
Their guide for the trip was Coronel Rondon, the famed Brazilian explorer whom the state of Rondonia was named after.
A lot of those who accompanied them on the trip perished along the way. Roosevelt’s son almost succumbed to illness in a gut wrenching episode that wrecked the former president with guilt over what he’d gotten his son into. In the end they made it back alive, brought back valuable samples for science, and The River of Doubt was renamed the Roosevelt River.
2. Sam Whalton – Getting arrested at a supermarket in Sao Paolo
In 1980, Sam Whalton was obsessed with turning Walmart into the best supermarket chain in the world.
He would leave no stone unturned in his quest for perfection. He was obsessed with every little detail about the operation, and if he thought that someone knew something that he didn’t then he wanted to know what it was.
It was this quest for perfection that drove him to get arrested in São Paulo one fateful afternoon.
As the story goes, Whalton was down on the floor, using a measuring tape to discover the distance between aisles. He believed that the Brazilian supermarket chain had set that distance for a reason and he wanted to test it out in one of his stores.
An attendant found the billionaire on the ground and called security. He tried to explain that he was the billionaire owner of the supermarket chain, but nobody could believe that an American billionaire would be on the floor of a South American supermarket.
He was booked in and arrested. After his release, which came swiftly once his identity was confirmed and cups of coffee were shared, Whalton took back more than just a tale of an unexpected arrest. He gleaned insights from Brazilian retail operations, noting the subtle differences in store layouts, product placements, and consumer behavior. These observations informed some of the subsequent strategies that Walmart deployed, not just in the U.S., but in its international expansions as well.
3. Michael Jackson’s Magical Visit to Rio
By the early 1980s, Michael Jackson had taken the world by storm with Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. In Brazil, Jacksonmania was in full force. One of his biggest fans was a young man living in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela. Inspired by Jackson’s music and message of unity, he decided to build a life-size statue of his idol using cement, rebar, and his bare hands.
Word of the statue spread throughout Rocinha. Jackson soon heard rumors of the fan’s creation during his Bad World Tour stop in Rio in 1988. Eager to see it for himself, Jackson secretly traveled into the heart of Rocinha. As he rounded the corner and saw the statue for the first time, Jackson broke into a huge smile. The crowd erupted in cheers at the sight of their hero standing next to his likeness.
Pictures from Jackson’s magical visit in Rocinha made the front pages. For one unforgettable moment, the King of Pop helped shine a spotlight on the vibrant culture and talent within Rio’s marginalized communities. It was one of Jackson’s most authentic interactions with his global fanbase and cemented his legacy of bringing people together through music.
4. Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Impact
In 1808, Napoleon’s advancing armies forced Portugal’s royal family to flee to Brazil. From Rio de Janeiro, the Prince Regent ruled Portugal’s American colonies with an iron fist. But after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, unrest was growing in Brazil. Many citizens felt used by their mother country, while a fire of independence was spreading through the Americas.
Inspired by the likes of Jefferson, Brazilians began meeting in secret to chart their own destiny. Knowing Jefferson was sympathetic, they reached out for advice. In letters to revolutionary leaders, Jefferson subtly suggested ways to peacefully break free while maintaining stable governance. He assured them of U.S. support if needed.
Jefferson’s guidance bolstered the rebels, who overthrew the Regent in 1821 and declared Brazil’s independence. Jefferson was true to his word—he immediately had the U.S. recognize the new Brazilian Empire. Thanks to Jefferson, Brazil avoided bloodshed and secured international standing from its beginnings. His pivotal role would not be forgotten by the grateful Brazilian people.
5. August Busch IV – Pioneering Ambev’s Growth in Brazil
In 1999, August Busch IV, then CEO of Anheuser-Busch, engineered a merger between the American brewer and Brazil’s second largest beer company Brahma to form AmBev. Busch saw the merger as an opportunity for Anheuser-Busch to gain a foothold in Brazil’s growing beer market.
Under Busch’s leadership, Anheuser-Busch gradually increased its stake in AmBev over the years to gain a controlling interest by 2004. Busch pushed to implement Anheuser-Busch’s modern production techniques, aggressive marketing, and corporate management culture to revolutionize Brazil’s beer industry.
Busch focused AmBev’s efforts on dominating the Brazilian market through brands like Brahma, Antarctica, and Skol. Within a few years, AmBev controlled over 70% of Brazil’s beer sales thanks to Busch’s vision.
Though Anheuser-Busch later sold its stake in AmBev, which was renamed Ambev in 2013, Busch set the company on the path to becoming the juggernaut brewer in Brazil and Latin America it is today. His bold move to merge with Brahma and integrate Ambev’s operations was the catalyst that enabled Ambev’s rapid growth and success in Brazil.
So August Busch IV’s strategic leadership was the driving American force behind Ambev’s origins and expansion in Brazil, leaving a lasting impact on the country’s beer industry.
In Retrospect: A Legacy of American Influence in Brazil
The narratives presented here, each unique in its own right, showcase the depth and breadth of American influence in Brazil. From the arduous journeys into the unknown heart of the Amazon to the strategic corridors of international business, American luminaries have etched their mark on Brazil’s canvas, often without speaking Portuguese, leaving lasting impressions that have shaped the course of history.
These encounters, whether driven by ambition, curiosity, or sheer happenstance, highlight the symbiotic relationship between the two nations. They serve as testaments to the power of individual actions to influence broader cultural, social, and economic dynamics.
As we reflect on these stories, it’s evident that Brazil and the United States, despite their geographical distance and distinct histories, share intertwined destinies shaped by their shared moments, decisions, and legacies. These tales remind us of the profound impact that individuals, driven by vision or passion, can have on shaping the course of nations. Whether through exploration, music, diplomacy, or commerce, the footprints left behind in Brazil by these American icons continue to resonate, inspiring future generations to forge their own paths and write their own chapters in the ever-evolving story of global interconnectedness